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 Highlights from
 Dominique's 25-year

Athabasca University


From course developer under contract, to professor, to president… 2003 is year number 25 in Dominique Abrioux’s Athabasca University career. In this interview, Dominique reflects on his experiences with, and contributions to, Canada’s premier distance post-secondary institution.

In the words of the President …

Dominique AbriouxRead what Dominique has to say about …

How to become president of Athabasca University.

What he likes about being president.

The worst thing about being president.

What’s kept him going the last 25 years.

The importance of family support.

His personal strengths.

His personal foibles.

What effective management means.

What brings him the most pride, professionally.

What he would do if he could change things.

What he most remembers about his tenure at AU.

What his future holds.

The perfect day.

The coolest person at AU.

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K: You didn’t begin at AU as president. How did you get here?

D: I was initially hired under a Subject Matter Expert (SME) contract to develop a French language course … With an SME contract in hand, I quickly created AU’s initial second language course and, thanks to Joe’s extremely strong advocacy for second language education, was asked to develop two other courses, and to tutor that first one … The success of this first course – and perhaps the fact that then-president Dr. Sam Smith successfully completed it – led to my appointment as Assistant Professor in 1979. I continued to develop and deliver French courses until 1981, when I was appointed Director of Liberal Studies, a title that subsequently changed to Dean of Arts and Sciences in the mid-80s … Then there was a two-year stint as acting Vice-President, Academic. In 1992, I was promoted to full Professor and continued my academic career until February 1995 when, following a year’s sabbatical in Japan, I was appointed President.

See the expanded response here.

K: When you signed on, years ago, did you ever think you would become president at AU?

D: I never imagined a career path that would lead to management, never mind to senior administration. I think if you’re doing a PhD in Comparative Literature, you’re interested in academia and you are doing it because you are interested in an academic life. Then factors change as your career advances, and you change. Athabasca was a great place to contribute in different ways at different points in time, such as program and course development and delivery, research, university community service. At some point, early on, I fell into university administration, somewhat unprepared I might add, as I’ve never to this day taken a course in management.

So, I was aspiring to a life in academia. I fulfilled that partially, but in some ways I regret not having been able to fulfill it more. Life is full of choices one makes and I don’t regret the way my career unfolded. I would like to return to ‘real’ academic work before I retire, but I believe that my major impact to academia, however, will have been to university administration rather that research and teaching.

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K: So, what is the best thing about being president?

D: (Big pause) There are many great things about being president, but I think that the key one is the ability to provide strategic direction to our institution and to take pride in our collective accomplishments. Given that AU was in real trouble in the early and mid-90s, I had the opportunity and the leeway, which I no longer have to the same extent today, to put my stamp on the kind of university AU has become.

If I think back to ‘95, when I became president, there were several strategic emphases that I believed had to be implemented for Athabasca University to turn the corner. One was a real focus on what I then termed ‘individualized distance education.’ Like many of my academic colleagues at AU, I believed this to be Athabasca’s niche, a focus that was at that point in time somewhat in question. There had in fact been no growth in our individualized study model for some ten years and I believed that this had to change if AU was to become viable. The government was seriously questioning our economic viability, as in 1995 Athabasca University received the highest government grant per FLE in the province, and our students also paid the highest tuition fees. While the University had to find more cost effective ways of operating, the primary solution to this cost-efficiency problem lay in significantly increasing our course enrolments in individualized study and hence the economies of scale.

Of course, our individualized distance education needed to epitomize flexible open learning, and while this has always been a hallmark of AU’s model, it was increasingly being called into question internally…

Placing the emphasis on flexible learning remains very important for us strategically, particularly in the e-learning age, for when traditional ‘competitors’ enter the online distance market, they focus on recreating the classroom through paced, cohort study models rather than on flexible individualized learning models…

The second really important strategy that I advocated (and still push for) was the development of a strong service culture. I thought that was key to our future, that the university staff had to see itself as part of a service industry, for the simple reason that unlike regionally based campus institutions, we have absolutely no protected student base. Anybody can do what we do - because they don’t have to be on-site to do it. Our challenge then is to do it better, but in the context of a strong service culture.

I thought then, and still believe today, that the traditional academic culture was not conducive to individualized study, to flexible learning, and to a real focus on service to students. Hence, increasingly these had to represent AU’s strengths.

Fortunately, I was able to recruit two people who provided real leadership in these areas. Judith Hughes, who assumed the responsibility for Student Services, and who worked with me on the development of our 1996 Strategic University Plan, and Alan Davis who bought into the vision that this plan presented and who told me when he accepted the VPA position in 1996 that a key factor had been the clarity and directions that the SUP committed to.

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K: So, what is the worst thing about being president?

D: I’d have to admit that for me, it’s the fact that I am ultimately responsible 24/7 for the well-being of the University. It’s inescapable given the role of CEO, and the pressures are certainly not of the same magnitude all the time, but the fact remains that I live and breathe AU 24/7. Closely linked to this is the lack of anonymity, and the absence of peers with whom you can discuss some of the more critical issues you’re facing. Ultimately, I’m responsible to the board and while I’ve got very strong Vice-Presidents I can’t share everything with them. Many university presidents use one another for this, but being president of AU is very different than being president at any other Canadian university…

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K: Why did you decide to continue at Athabasca University the last 25 years.

D: If you believed in Athabasca’s mission and mandate, it was really the only Canadian institution in which you could work effectively, where you weren’t working against the grain, during the period of 1975-2000. It never crossed my mind to seek another position.

Add to this my belief that AU provided, through the 30 years of its existence, for most employees, whether academics, support staff, professionals or administrators, very different opportunities over different phases, either of the individual’s life cycle or the institutional life cycle.

Why leave if you really enjoy what you’re doing, and if you think you can make a difference, and if it’s the only place where you think you’re going to have that level of job satisfaction?

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K: How did you manage to endure?

D: I don’t think of myself as being in endurance or survival mode. For me, those are pretty negative concepts … it almost sounds like all the circumstances are unfavourable, or many of them are unfavourable. I don’t see the presidency that way! I love what I’m doing. Sometimes I wish I weren’t doing it, and that’s true of being in any position, but I love what I’m doing and I think there’s great satisfaction in just the progress that Athabasca University has made.

In any position, having a strong family support system is very important. If I didn’t have the support – not just the support – if I didn’t have the happiness I have in my home environment, I wouldn’t do this job because I couldn’t do it well. That’s not so much about endurance, but more about addressing the requirements for me to succeed.

The workload and challenges are so heavy, and some of the issues so overbearing, that if I had to have the challenge of making a family situation work on top of it, I couldn’t be happy as president. Fortunately, I have the best personal support system imaginable in Lou, my wife of 32 years, and still the person with whom I love to spend my time… We have two wonderful, grownup – thank goodness! – kids, and two grandchildren. I have more than enough happiness unrelated to my work…

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K: What do you see as being your own personal strengths?

D: I believe I’m committed. I’m not easily swayed from achieving a goal that I consider to be important. I’m also hardworking.

Perhaps my greatest strength, though, is that I believe I have a fairly accurate assessment of my own limitations. I think it’s really important to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. If you know your limitations, you can compensate for them in different ways.

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K: What are your foibles?

D: I have a very poor memory and have to try and compensate for that in various ways…I also have to work harder and longer than many of my peers in order to make similar accomplishments. In the position I occupy right now, one of the areas that I have to work harder than others at, is networking, public speaking as well. First of all, I don’t particularly like either of them and yet I recognize they’re important to what I do. I have to somewhat force myself to network, for example. The location of Athabasca doesn’t help in that regard, because we don’t have the constituency you would have if you were president of a university in Edmonton where there would be big expectations and opportunities from the community. Some are far better than others at networking, although one certainly learns through experience, through being placed in that environment. This is less evident at AU, however, both because of the kind of organization Athabasca is and our location. Yet on the occasions where one is expected to have a public presence, the expectations are the same as they would be of any university president… I find I have to work very hard at that.

I am also rather critical and speak my mind too freely, sometimes, particularly when my expectations of others are not met. Wearing one’s feelings on one’s sleeves, as I tend to do, can also be counterproductive sometimes…

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K: What is your philosophy for creating an effective management style?

D: I firmly believe in a value-driven leadership model. Senior staff has to believe in and exhibit the values that are key to the organizational culture and, hence, to its successes.

For example, if you take the importance that I believe excellent service plays in AU’s success, a value driven leadership model means that management at Athabasca University must consider it important to demonstrate exemplary service to one other, to staff in general, and to our students. This starts with me, and while some staff no doubt believe that I place too much emphasis on the implementation of our published service standards, such as those that apply to voicemail and e-mail, I believe that I must walk the talk, and so can expect others to do so as well.

More generally, successful management must build on the organizational values and, in our case, starts with the senior management team demonstrating through their daily actions that they firmly believe in the core values outlined in our 2002 Strategic University Plan.

K: How do you translate that philosophy into your everyday work life?

D: It’s not very difficult … To return to the e-mail standards, for example, when people send me an e-mail, they have the right to expect me to respond. They don’t want someone else to read my e-mail. They expect me to respond and they expect a timely response, just as I would expect of them and just as our students would expect, and rightfully so, of tutors, academics and administrative staff. That’s a somewhat banal example given a president’s role, but I think it’s nevertheless very important. If I value teaching, as I do, I need to demonstrate that regardless of my primary role in the organization. During almost all my career at Athabasca as an administrator, I’ve also taught. During my term as president, I’ve tutored most years, not as much as the average faculty member but still a significant amount.

The Ombuds office initiative that I launched several years ago is also a relevant example. I have it reporting out of my office, not only because in that way it’s at arm’s length from almost all departments, but also because I believe it’s important to send the message to all staff and students that the president is also here to serve students. So, if they’re not getting satisfaction from elsewhere in the organization, students know that the president is actively concerned in addressing their issues – not always to their satisfaction, I might add! I receive many e-mails from students and, through the Ombuds office with whom I work very closely, we try to address them. Of course, due process has to be followed and with the student’s permission, their concern is forwarded for possible resolution to the appropriate staff member or department, but sometimes students need an advocate and they have to know that their last internal advocate is me.

Accessibility and openness represent other key organizational values at AU, and these apply equally to the management culture as to our educational programs and regulations. As president, being accessible and open is hard work, but it does have paybacks.

Some of the pressures on the job have changed significantly because of the electronic environment. It used to be that when you were working away from the University, which is an important part of the president’s role and certainly two to three days a week of my job, there were no expectations that you would be available for internal issues unless they were critical. However, when I am away from AU today, I still have to spend three to four hours on e-mail, or on cell phone calls, addressing the day-to-day issues that constantly surface. This is partly my style and I do this because I think it’s important and because the new technologies create this expectation. In fact, on any given day almost everybody - except Ferne! - has no idea where I am. I could be in Athabasca, Edmonton, Calgary, or anywhere in the world, and my role in the administration of AU is unaffected. Previously, this wouldn’t have been the case. The internal job would have been handled by someone else, or would have waited, and while my modus operandi created more work for me when I am away from the university, the advantage is that I am practically always caught up. When I return to Athabasca, I don’t have to come in and close the door for a day and do all the internal correspondence. So it’s give and take. But if you think abut the kind of service we should be striving to give to our students, 24/7, whether it’s academic or administrative 24/7, one of the ways in which I show that this is important is by seeking to do the same myself, with staff and students.

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K: Looking back on your tenure here, what brings you the most pride?

D: On a personal level, I think I’m most proud of the honourary degree I’ll be receiving from the British Open University this September, because in the field of open and distance learning institutions, I don’t think there can be any higher recognition. While I am not quite finished yet with being AU’s president – my second term ends in 2005 – I consider this recognition as the one that crowns my career to date. It came as a complete surprise, as I had never thought that I might be considered for such an award.

On an institutional level, I am very proud of the tremendous turn-around that AU has achieved since the mid-1990s. We have gone from an institution on the verge of being closed down, to becoming recognized as Canada’s Open University. I believe that provincially, federally, and internationally, AU is now considered as a world-class university and a leader in its field. Clearly, this is the collective accomplishment of the AU community, but one in which I take particular pride…

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K: Would you have done anything differently?

D: There are lots of small things I would have done differently. Insofar as significant changes are concerned, though, I don’t believe so. I think with the big decisions, you make them and then you make the most of them. It’s not part of my philosophy to critically examine major decisions I have made and to consider what it would have been like had I made different one. One cannot undo the past and certainly one can’t know whether taking a different road would have resulted in an improvement or not.

I have a very fulfilling life and I have been very fortunate professionally and personally.
No, I wouldn’t want to change anything of significance, but I have lots of little mistakes, as many people have.

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K: What will you most remember … or what do you most remember from your tenure at AU? We’re not talking past tense, yet, right?

D: Yeah, that’s right. I remember, vividly, the day that relocation to Athabasca was announced, where I was and what I was doing. I was at the Calgary regional office and a staff member there informed me that the university was being relocated and, hence, my job. It was a complete shock to me! I don’t believe at that time that I even knew there was a Town of Athabasca 120 kilometers north of Edmonton! Nor do I think I was aware that relocation was in the cards…

Like many faculty members at the time, my reaction was to say that I would not relocate! But I very much liked AU and wanted to stay on staff – not that there were many other opportunities in academia for a PhD in Comparative Literature! – so I tried commuting but found the pressures too great. I was, by then, in administration and had to be in Athabasca three or four days a week, and our kids were then in Grades 7 and 4. So, we did in fact relocate to Athabasca. and both our children completed high school here, at which point we returned to Edmonton.

Interestingly, even though relocating AU to Athabasca was entirely political and resulted in the resignation of the president and board chair, and in spite of the fact that it placed considerable pressure on the University at a time when it should have been directing its energy elsewhere, location was undoubtedly one of our saving graces in the early 1990s.
Had we still been in Edmonton at that time, would we exist today? I’d be surprised…

One of the problems with relocation, though, was that it was announced four years before it happened. This extended period between the government’s announcement and relocation itself provided time for people to rally their opposition, to say it was not going to happen, because it was fairly distant. All it did was to encourage people to fight it. There was time for some people to find other jobs, although this was practically impossible for the academics because the academic market was just very depressed in the early 80s. These intervening years were very bad for AU’s immediate future.

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K: What does the future hold for you? Here’s yet another opportunity to spill the beans.

D: (chuckle) Well, I have some work left before completing my term in 2005. My focus during this period will be twofold: the reorganization of the academic division and the subsequent recruitment of a VPA to replace Alan Davis, and the completion of our candidacy period for U.S. Middle States accreditation. Thereafter, and once the next president has taken office, I’ll take some leave. I don’t have any plans to leave AU, and I can’t see myself working at this level and intensity elsewhere, or for much longer. AU has been very good to me and I hope to end my career here doing academic work and contributing in any way deemed meaningful.

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K: On a lighter note, what is a perfect day for you?

D: Academic Council in the morning, Governing Council in the afternoon, Executive Group in the evening!

K: Ha ha. Yeah, right.

D: On week-ends, when not on the road, I get up at about 6 o’clock, read le Monde, a French weekly newspaper which keeps me up to date on French and European news and culture. Though it is a very thin paper, it’s quite heavy reading because of the content and it often takes me the week to get through it.

If one of the tennis grand slams is on, I’ll watch that. Usually with the time difference that works. I usually make the breakfast at home. If we’re in Edmonton, Lou and I will go for a two-hour walk, stop off on Whyte Avenue and have a coffee. I’ll generally work in the afternoon. In the evening we’ll go out for supper or eat at home. If it’s just the two of us, generally, we’ll cook together. If we’re entertaining, Lou will do the cooking. She does most of the exotic cooking. I do my fair share of the daily cooking. Then it’s about 8 o’clock, and the question is how do you keep Dominique awake, because if he sits down he’ll fall asleep.

I exercise a fair bit, perhaps five times a week. I swim. I walk a lot. I think it’s important to keep as fit as possible. It also allows me to indulge in two of my other big pleasures: food and drink.

I read. When I read, for pleasure reading, I will read only in French, generally suspense, thriller novels that maintain my interest. It allows me to at least keep some contact with the French language. My kids are gone, and I spoke French to my kids. I no longer teach or have colleagues with whom I speak French to on a daily basis, so I try to maintain my French that way.

Every three weeks or so, we spend an afternoon or evening with our married daughter, Nicola, and her family who live in Red Deer. That’s fun and very relaxing! We have a fair bit in common and spend time both with the grandchildren and with just the adults. On much rarer occasions, we see our son Mario who’s a lawyer in Toronto.

I also travel, but not so much for leisure. I’ve done almost all the leisure travel I want to do. One hotel is the same as another…

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K: Last question. Who do you think is the coolest person at AU?

D: (dead silence) I don’t think I want to touch that one.

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